On Friday, July 20, 2012, some time between 12 and 2pm, I will have the great pleasure of substituting for Linda DeLibero, the Associate Director of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University, as the film critic for WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks show. Nobody can replace Linda, but I’ll do my best to be both informative and entertaining. The theme of the show that day will be “Summer Blockbusters (and Indies),” or something like that. I don’t know whether I’ll be speaking during the first or second hour, but I’ll let everyone know when I know.
The only problem with having this honor bestowed on me is that, until this Wednesday past, I had only seen the following “summer films:”
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Avengers, Men in Black III, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman
Since I took a trip to New York yesterday, I was only able to get started on the marathon of movie watching ahead of me … today. But I managed 3 films so far, and as long as I find time to watch 2 films a day through next Thursday, 7/19, I should be able to talk about the summer selection without coming across as too much of an idiot. Oh, wait … it won’t be for me to decide if I’m an idiot, will it?
Let’s start with my brief impressions of the films I had seen before today, shall we? These are not full-fledged reviews, but just my notes on each film (some are longer than others).
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, Director) Grade = D-
I loved Night Watch and Day Watch, two (Russian) previous films by this director. They were unpredictable, over-the-top, ridiculous, with terrific special effects, and scripts that sparkled with originality. I couldn’t for the life of me recount their convoluted plots, but I enjoyed every minute of both of them. They were not great works of art, but they were masterful works of great entertainment.
Unfortunately, I thought this new film was terrible. I did not see Wanted, an earlier English-language film by Bekmambetov, but if this film is any indication of what happens to his talent in translation, he should stay in Russia.
As much as I hated this movie, I didn’t hate it for the first 45 minutes or so. As long as we stay with the young Abe Lincoln, pre-Presidency and pre-Civil War, the film has a goofy charm. I have no objection to high-concept ridiculousness where a real historical figure ends up in an artificial context. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s silly take on World War II, had its moments of brilliance. So why can’t a film about our 16th President have fun turning him into a vampire slayer? Yes, why not, I ask you?
Well, the problems arise when we flash forward (clumsily) from the young Abe to the Civil War. At this point the film trivializes the horrors of the carnage of that war, as well as the abomination that was slavery. The complicated politics and tortured justifications for the lifestyle of the antebellum South end up being wiped out in favor of an alternative, “Southern slaveholders were all actually vampires” theory. This sounds like it could work as a great visual metaphor for how unforgivable slavery was, but in practice it just ends up making it all feel like scenes from just another bad action movie, complete with the now-tired technique of frame-ramping in the middle of leaps, jumps, swings, and blows.
But let’s say you just wanted to watch a film with crazy stunts and great 3D, would it be worth it then? I think not, as this film features the worst looking 3D images I have seen all summer. Давай, Тимур! Домой уезжай. Ты там лучше работаешь …
The Avengers (Josh Whedon, Director) [Note - much to my amusement, we are supposed to call this film “Marvel’s The Avengers”] Grade = B/B+
I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would, given what short shrift ensemble action films usually give to any kind of character development. The 3D technology was also very pleasingly incorporated into the story, and overall the performance of the actors was strong. I haven’t kept up on the reasons why Ed Norton did not return as Bruce Banner (no need to explain why it’s not Eric Bana …), but Mark Ruffalo did fine in that role. I’ve begun to forget the plot already – and don’t really care that much to force myself to remember it – but that’s OK. The film did its job, which was to entertain me for a few hours.
I will add, however, that I remain a staunch opponent to the inclusion of the Thor and Loki characters in this universe. I understand that they have been part of this universe since Stan Lee created all of these characters, but the pure fantasy elements of their world don’t mesh so well with some of the more science fiction elements of the other characters (like the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, etc.). For this viewer, that contrast is a jarring disconnect (and I hated hated hated the actual Thor movie).
One final note – I was much amused during the overlong battle sequence in New York at the end whenever we would go from a shot of Iron Man with his fancy firebolts, to the Hawk with his advanced high-tech arrows, to Captain America with his super shield, to Thor with his hammer, to … Black Widow with her … pistols. Yeah – like that’s going to stop much … seems like Scralett drew the short straw.
Men in Black III (Barry Sonnenfeld, Director): Grade = B/B+
Men in Black III is a very pleasant frivolity. It is certainly a much stronger entry in the series than was Men in Black II. Josh Brolin – as all of the critics I have read have noted – does a spot-on (and therefore hilarious) imitation of Tommy Lee Jones, but it is Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin whom I found to be the most welcome surprise. I had previously only seen him in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man – in which he was a revelation – and here he shows that he has real (and truly comedic) range.
The 3D was well used in the action scenes, actually adding to the tension (and vertigo) in the moments staged at great heights (especially at the Chrysler Building). And for once the glasses did not give me a headache. I’m not sure if it’s because the technology is improving or I am just getting used to it, but this is a welcome shift.
I don’t rate the film higher because I was distracted by the (usual) time travel inconsistencies; in particular the one where it would have been impossible in a world without K for J to be living his life exactly as it had previously been lived (including his apartment, job, etc.), without K to recruit him to the agency. But hey – the rest was good fun, and perfect for a summery confection.
Prometheus (Ridley Scott, Director) Grade = B/B-
I have just one word: “Father.” That about sums up the problems with the film. Whereas a movie like Alien left much unspoken, and took its time letting us get to know the characters before the mayhem started, this movie feels rushed, and is very unsubtle. So when Charlize utters that one word, I wasn’t surprised, as it summed up what the filmmakers think of their audience – we’re dumb, we’re crass, and we have a short attention span. Then again, if you look at all of the other movies playing …
The problem is that there is a lot that is done right, which makes the stuff that is done less well feel really lazy. I love the Michael Fassbender android character, and I love the premise of the film. The landing and first exploration on the planet also raised some hopes. But then, stuff just started happening too quickly. I wanted more time with these people. I wanted to know Shaw as I knew Ripley. I wanted to care when people died.
The 3D is nice, as is the production design (still riffing off of the original Giger work). Noomi’s good, and her desperate caesarian was definitely cringe-inducing. I didn’t like Logan Marshall-Green, however, as he seemed way to vacuous to be a scientist. And speaking of science, just what kind of doctor is Shaw supposed to be? For an archaeologist, she seems to be doing an awful lot of medical doctoring, as well.
So I would call this an imperfect film that is nevertheless a notch above most of the other summer fare, with an intelligence of sorts below its unfinished surface.
My friend Hollis marveled at the number of other movies referenced directly or indirectly in here, as if Scott and his screenwriters were taking the DNA of what they know and using it to create a new creature based of off the old one. That might be giving them too much credit, but you never know.
Snow White and the Hunstman (Rupert Sanders, Director) Grade = B/B-
Liked it OK – but the ending shot was horrible – the actors didn’t know what to do as the camera clumsily dollied back, waiting for the doors to close. That fumble is a perfect metaphor for the things that DON’T work, since it encapsulates the film’s failure to make much of the Snow White/Huntsman connection. Oh, and it was way too long, and could have lost the Joan of Arc battle scenes. That said, I liked much of the acting, including Charlize Theron and the dwarves.
And now, here are my impressions of the three films I just saw today, which were, in screening order: Savages, Ted, and Brave. One interesting note about all three is that they all feature inconsistent use of voiceover (one of my pet peeves). Use it or don’t (and I say mostly, “don’t”), but please don’t use it for the first five minutes, forget about it for 90 minutes, and then bring it back at the end to tie things up ..
Savages (Oliver Stone, Director) Grade = B
From a pure filmmaking point of view, this film was very strong. I was also blown away by most of the actors. The young people – Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively – were all quite fine. I cant believe how much Blake Lively has grown as an actress since I first saw her in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (in which I thought she was the worst one of the four friends). I also can’t believe that Aaron Johnson, who plays Ben, is as young as he is (born in 1990), and is the same guy who played the main character in Kick-Ass. Really? Amazing! I think he’s someone to watch.
All of the older, more established actors, including Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta, were in top form. My favorite scene in the whole movie was the one between Del Toro and Travolta. They were so much fun to watch together. And Salma – well, along with Cate Blanchett, she is one of those people whom I would watch in just about anything …
So why only a “B?” Well, I just couldn’t relate to the people. I didn’t identify with the main characters, and I didn’t care what happened to them. From a script point of view, they were underdeveloped and shallow, and none of the fine craft on display by director, DP, and actors could make them more interesting.
The graphic violence didn’t bother me that much, since I expected it. But one should expect it, or else one will be quite upset when it comes, and it comes right away. This is, after all, a movie about the drug trade on the California/Mexico border.
Ted (Seth MacFarlane, Director) Grade = F
Yesterday, on the bus home from New York, I watched last year’s The Muppets on my iPad. As I was watching that charming and sweet film about a man who needs to grow up and leave his youthful obsessions behind, I thought to myself, “hmmm, from what I know about Ted, it seems like these two films have a lot in common.” Sadly, I was mistaken.
While it is true that both films deal with the stories of boy-men who must accept the responsibilities and joys of the adult world, including making a commitment to a romantic partner, the one is masterfully crafted, while the other is a disgusting and crass mess of a movie.
On the surface, Ted is one of those high-concept stories I love. It’s tough when you’re writing a screenplay to find convincing visual metaphors that effectively externalize the internal conflicts of the characters. Unlike in a novel, you shouldn’t generally resort to having people come out and say how they feel, since the visual nature of the medium dictates that images can usually be more expressive than words. So what better way to represent a 35-year-old adolescent than by showing a man who still lives and hangs out with his teddy bear, who in this case just happens to talk (and smoke pot, drink, fornicate, and all of that good stuff).
Sadly, for this viewer, however, the film is part of the “vulgarity is funny for its own sake” style of filmmaking that I abhor. While David Mamet so brilliantly showed, in Glengarry Glen Ross, how hundreds of f-bombs could work to show the aggressiveness of his characters, their mere presence does not usually constitute “TRUTH.” Mr. MacFarlane seems to believe that prostitutes, feces, tired homophobic jokes, swearing, farting (and more) are the soul of wit. And why not, right? It worked for the makers of Bridesmaids …
Finally, the character played by Mark Wahlberg is, in fact, a total loser (his portrayal is not helped by the fact that the usually stellar Wahlberg seems to be stoned, himself, throughout the film). Everyone who calls him that in the film is correct. Mila Kunis is right to leave him. Too bad she has to come back.
Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, Directors) Grade = B
As usual for a Pixar film, the animation in this movie was beautiful. My favorite characters were the bears. Especially mama bear. The 3D was also quite fine. If you’re looking for a lovely film to which to take your family and kids, and you can’t rent The Muppets and stay home, then this is the summer film to see.
Unfortunately, it’s also a little bland, despite the flaming read hair of the main character. I think it’s wonderful that Pixar finally decided to write a lead female character, but I wish they had done it in a film that was as inventive as such masterpieces like the Toy Story films, Monster’s Inc, Finding Nemo and Up.
It seems as if the Disney influence has finally permeated the Pixar culture through and through, and not the best of the Disney influence, either. We’ve seen this plot before, of the rebellious child yearning to be free, who asks a witch/sorcerer for a magic solution to their problem, only to have it backfire … The Scottish accents, while fun to listen to, don’t freshen it up enough.
And that’s all for now. Not sure what I’ll see tomorrow, but I’ll be sure to write something up at the end of the day. Here are some of the films on my to-see list for the next week:
Rock of Ages
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection
Katy Perry: Part of Me
Ice Age: Continental Drift
Batman (for 7/19)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
To Rome with Love
Thanks for reading!